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I. SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF MEDAEVAL THOUGHT
IN the earliest days of his upward evolution man was satisfied with a very
crude explanation of natural phenomena—that to which the name
"animism" has been given. In this stage of mental development all the
various forces of Nature are personified: the rushing torrent, the
devastating fire, the wind rustling the forest leaves—in the mind of
the animistic savage all these are personalities, spirits, like himself,
but animated by motives more or less antagonistic to him.
I suppose that no possible exception could be taken to the statement that
modern science renders animism impossible. But let us inquire in exactly
what sense this is true. It is not true that science robs natural
phenomena of their spiritual significance. The mistake is often made of
supposing that science explains, or endeavours to explain, phenomena. But
that is the business of philosophy. The task science attempts is the
simpler one of the correlation of natural phenomena, and in this effort
leaves the ultimate problems of metaphysics untouched. A universe,
however, whose phenomena are not only capable of some degree of
correlation, but present the extraordinary degree of harmony and unity
which science makes manifest in Nature, cannot be, as in animism, the
product of a vast number of inco-ordinated and antagonistic wills, but
must either be the product of one Will, or not the product of will at all.
The latter alternative means that the Cosmos is inexplicable, which not
only man's growing experience, but the fact that man and the universe form
essentially a unity, forbid us to believe. The term "anthropomorphic" is
too easily applied to philosophical systems, as if it constituted a
criticism of their validity. For if it be true, as all must admit, that
the unknown can only be explained in terms of the known, then the universe
must either be explained in terms of man—i.e. in terms of
will or desire—or remain incomprehensible. That is to say, a
philosophy must either be anthropomorphic, or no philosophy at all.
Thus a metaphysical scrutiny of the results of modern science leads us to
a belief in God. But man felt the need of unity, and crude animism, though
a step in the right direction, failed to satisfy his thought, long before
the days of modern science. The spirits of animism, however, were not
discarded, but were modified, co-ordinated, and worked into a system as
servants of the Most High. Polytheism may mark a stage in this process;
or, perhaps, it was a result of mental degeneracy.
What I may term systematised as distinguished from crude animism persisted
throughout the Middle Ages. The work of systematisation had already been
accomplished, to a large extent, by the Neo-Platonists and whoever were
responsible for the Kabala. It is true that these main sources of magical
or animistic philosophy remained hidden during the greater part of the
Middle Ages; but at about their close the youthful and enthusiastic
CORNELIUS AGRIPPA (1486-1535)(1) slaked his thirst thereat and produced
his own attempt at the systematisation of magical belief in the famous Three
Books of Occult Philosophy. But the waters of magical philosophy
reached the mediaeval mind through various devious channels, traditional
on the one hand and literary on the other. And of the latter, the works of
pseudo-DIONYSIUS,(2) whose immense influence upon mediaeval thought has
sometimes been neglected, must certainly be noted.
(1) The story of his life has been admirably told by HENRY MORLEY (2
(2) These writings were first heard of in the early part of the sixth
century, and were probably the work of a Syrian monk of that date, who
fathered them on to DIONYSIUS the Areopagite as a pious fraud. See Dean
INGE'S Christian Mysticism (1899), pp. 104—122, and VAUGHAN'S
Hours with the Mystics (7th ed., 1895), vol. i. pp. 111-124. The
books have been translated into English by the Rev. JOHN PARKER (2
vols.1897-1899), who believes in the genuineness of their alleged
The most obvious example of a mediaeval animistic belief is that in
"elementals"—the spirits which personify the primordial forces of
Nature, and are symbolised by the four elements, immanent in which they
were supposed to exist, and through which they were held to manifest their
powers. And astrology, it must be remembered, is essentially a
systematised animism. The stars, to the ancients, were not material bodies
like the earth, but spiritual beings. PLATO (427-347 B.C.) speaks of them
as "gods". Mediaeval thought did not regard them in quite this way. But
for those who believed in astrology, and few, I think, did not, the stars
were still symbols of spiritual forces operative on man. Evidences of the
wide extent of astrological belief in those days are abundant, many
instances of which we shall doubtless encounter in our excursions.
It has been said that the theological and philosophical atmosphere of the
Middle Ages was "scholastic," not mystical. No doubt "mysticism," as a
mode of life aiming at the realisation of the presence of God, is as
distinct from scholasticism as empiricism is from rationalism, or
"tough-minded" philosophy (to use JAMES' happy phrase) is from
"tender-minded". But no philosophy can be absolutely and purely deductive.
It must start from certain empirically determined facts. A man might be an
extreme empiricist in religion (i.e. a mystic), and yet might
attempt to deduce all other forms of knowledge from the results of his
religious experiences, never caring to gather experience in any other
realm. Hence the breach between mysticism and scholasticism is not really
so wide as may appear at first sight. Indeed, scholasticism officially
recognised three branches of theology, of which the MYSTICAL was one. I
think that mysticism and scholasticism both had a profound influence on
the mediaeval mind, sometimes acting as opposing forces, sometimes
operating harmoniously with one another. As Professor WINDELBAND puts it:
"We no longer onesidedly characterise the philosophy of the middle ages as
scholasticism, but rather place mysticism beside it as of equal rank, and
even as being the more fruitful and promising movement."(1)
(1) Professor WILHELM WINDELBAND, Ph.D.: "Present-Day Mysticism," The
Quest, vol. iv. (1913), P. 205.
Alchemy, with its four Aristotelian or scholastic elements and its three
mystical principles—sulphur, mercury, salt,—must be cited as
the outstanding product of the combined influence of mysticism and
scholasticism: of mysticism, which postulated the unity of the Cosmos, and
hence taught that everything natural is the expressive image and type of
some supernatural reality; of scholasticism, which taught men to rely upon
deduction and to restrict experimentation to the smallest possible limits.
The mind naturally proceeds from the known, or from what is supposed to be
known, to the unknown. Indeed, as I have already indicated, it must so
proceed if truth is to be gained. Now what did the men of the Middle Ages
regard as falling into the category of the known? Why, surely, the truths
of revealed religion, whether accepted upon authority or upon the evidence
of their own experience. The realm of spiritual and moral reality: there,
they felt, they were on firm ground. Nature was a realm unknown; but they
had analogy to guide, or, rather, misguide them. Nevertheless if, as we
know, it misguided, this was not, I think, because the mystical doctrine
of the correspondence between the spiritual and the natural is unsound,
but because these ancient seekers into Nature's secrets knew so little,
and so frequently misapplied what they did know. So alchemical philosophy
arose and became systematised, with its wonderful endeavour to perfect the
base metals by the Philosopher's Stone—the concentrated Essence of
Nature,—as man's soul is perfected through the life-giving power of
I want, in conclusion to these brief introductory remarks, to say a few
words concerning phallicism in connection with my topic. For some
"tender-minded"(1) and, to my thought, obscure, reason the subject is
tabooed. Even the British Museum does not include works on phallicism in
its catalogue, and special permission has to be obtained to consult them.
Yet the subject is of vast importance as concerns the origin and
development of religion and philosophy, and the extent of phallic worship
may be gathered from the widespread occurrence of obelisks and similar
objects amongst ancient relics. Our own maypole dances may be instanced as
one survival of the ancient worship of the male generative principle.
(1) I here use the term with the extended meaning Mr H. G. WELLS has given
to it. See The New Machiavelli.
What could be more easy to understand than that, when man first questioned
as to the creation of the earth, he should suppose it to have been
generated by some process analogous to that which he saw held in the case
of man? How else could he account for its origin, if knowledge must
proceed from the known to the unknown? No one questions at all that the
worship of the human generative organs as symbols of the dual generative
principle of Nature degenerated into orgies of the most frightful
character, but the view of Nature which thus degenerated is not, I think,
an altogether unsound one, and very interesting remnants of it are to be
found in mediaeval philosophy.
These remnants are very marked in alchemy. The metals, as I have
suggested, are there regarded as types of man; hence they are produced
from seed, through the combination of male and female principles—mercury
and sulphur, which on the spiritual plane are intelligence and love. The
same is true of that Stone which is perfect Man. As BERNARD of TREVISAN
(1406-1490) wrote in the fifteenth century: "This Stone then is compounded
of a Body and Spirit, or of a volatile and fixed Substance, and that is
therefore done, because nothing in the World can be generated and brought
to light without these two Substances, to wit, a Male and Female: From
whence it appeareth, that although these two Substances are not of one and
the same species, yet one Stone doth thence arise, and although they
appear and are said to be two Substances, yet in truth it is but one, to
wit, Argent-vive."(1) No doubt this sounds fantastic; but with all
their seeming intellectual follies these old thinkers were no fools. The
fact of sex is the most fundamental fact of the universe, and is a
spiritual and physical as well as a physiological fact. I shall deal with
the subject as concerns the speculations of the alchemists in some detail
in a later excursion.
(1) BERNARD, Earl of TREVISAN: A Treatise of the Philosopher's Stone,
1683. (See Collectanea Chymica: A Collection of Ten Several Treatises
in Chemistry, 1684, p. 91.)
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